book review

Digital Storytelling
A creators guide to interactive entertainment

Carolyn Handler Miller (2004)

Carolyn Handler Miller wrote a book about storytelling for various interactive media. In its scope the book is one of the broadest I have so far encountered. This is probably the book biggest strengths. Combined with an interest of the author that favours content over technology this makes for a fresh approach to the field of interactive storytelling, even though the author does not follow through and is less thorough than I would want her to be.

The book is divided in four parts that might serve each individual reader differently. The first part aims at providing a brief history of the new technologies for storytelling. I find this part to be the weakest of the book by far. The historical context provided is eclectic and subjective. Although the link between interactive storytelling an mythology is not often encountered its treatment is only sketchy. The history of new media technologies has been covered much better by most other books I have read so far. Only chapter three on convergence in this part stands out. It deals with recent industry trends of combining different technologies and media into new objects on the one hand, and cross-media production and branding on the other hand. In this chapter the author takes more critical distance to her subject to the immediate benefit of the text.

Part two features a more theoretical take on interactive storytelling, with some good chapters and interactivity, character, structure and designing interactive projects for children. Curiously, there is no chapter on storytelling and narrative technique itself, reflecting the background of Miller, who was studied English and Journalism before entering the field of interactive storytelling. I think that readers who share a similar background stand to gain the most of the book while those looking for a text that also introduces them to the art of storytelling will need to look further.

Part three focuses on a number of different media for interactive storytelling. Each chapter discusses to some detail one of these media. The quality of these chapters vary. With some good work on interactive television, cross-media productions and immersive environments (or virtual reality), and weaker chapters on the Internet, smart toys, and wireless devices, and chapters on games, MMOGs, DVDs, interactive cinema and kiosks somewhere between. The quality of the chapters correlates directly with the critical distance (again) Miller manages to keep to the material she presents. The fourth and final part gives some advice on how to find a job in the industry, most useful for students and those that fancy a career change.

Although the book gives a lot of food for though, especially in some of the detailed discussions in part three, it is not always very thorough. Miller does a good job on discussing those aspects of the industry she knows well, or those she approaches critically. At other points in the book she fails to get past the level of showing what might be done with the current level of technology, and sometimes she risks following trends and hypes too easily. It is a shame that the book does live up to what Miller set out to do: to write a book about interactive storytelling that focuses on content. It is as if she is trying to juggle one or two balls to many to really succeed in this area. Still Miller covers a lot of relatively unexplored ground and her approach is different from most other works in this area.